The cold never bothered me anyway: Yuki Onna

In the spirit of the holidays, let’s talk about a monster that can leave you looking like Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining!   

Yuki Onna (which translates to “Snow Woman”) is a Japanese yokai that borders on the edge of being too popular to be featured on this blog. First written about during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573), she has survived centuries to proliferate in movies, video games, and anime, even having her own TV Tropes page. There are as many versions of her tale as there are designs of a snowflake. Most nowadays cleave to a romantic, sorrowful, un-Monster-Meet-like interpretation of her, but it was not always that way.

Thin ice

Yuki Onna
Yuki Onna doin’ her thing and wearing clothes.

Different Japanese prefectures have different takes on Yuki Onna, but by and large, she was originally conceived of as either a harbinger of the changing seasons and/or a gifter of icy death.Travellers would spot something in the falling snow: a beautiful woman with translucent skin, black hair, blue lips, and turbulent, violet eyes. Leaving no tracks–sometimes having no feet at all–she would drift lightly a few inches above the snow. Though the wind might howl and the traveller’s eyelashes be crusted with ice, the woman would be wearing nothing more than a light kimono (and sometimes less than that). 

If you as a traveller were exceptionally stupid, you might persue this woman, whereupon she would lead you to your icy death (pro tip: never follow supernatural beings in the wilderness; they almost always lead you to your death. Especially if they’re trying to be all seductive.). Try to ignore her, and Yuki Onna might call to you. In certain prefectures, responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine your death. In others, not responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine to your death. 

Sometimes Yuki Onna would show up with a child in her arms (especially if there was one missing and their parents were out searching for them). Try to take the child, and it would become so heavy that you would be dragged down and die frozen in the snow. Refuse to take the child and you would be–have you guessed it?–shoved down a ravine to your death. Alternately, Yuki Onna might just eat you (if you looked her in her face), or suck out your vital energy (if you happened to live in a certain prefecture). 

When not frightening strangers in snowy passes, Yuki Onna could be found tricking her way in (or straight up busting in) to houses to freeze everyone inside. She’d also wander through villages demanding water (give her cold water, and she would bulge to a monstrous size; hot water, and she would disappear). There are several stories of her appearing on or around the New Year, which range from simply showing up in a ghostly, frightening manner to her stealing away children en masse to play in a field. 

In sum, Yuki Onna seems to have started out representing all of the cruelty of winter. It might even be said that she represented the cruelty of life, as Wikipedia puts it (with shocking poetry): “Old tales about yuki-onna are mostly stories of sorrow, and it is said that these tales started from when people who have lived gloomy lives, such as childless old couples or single men in mountain villages, would hear the sound of a blizzard knocking on their shutter door and fantasize that the thing that they longed for has come. It is said that after that, they would live in happiness with what they longed for in a fantasy as fleeting as snow.” 

Cold comfort

After the 18th century, Yuki Onna started reflecting a more romantic version of reality. Nowadays, she shows up less as a scantily clad woman who would brutally murder you and more as a scantily clad woman who maybe you could marry and be happy with for a while–at least until her identity is revealed. 

One story makes her out to be a moon princess, who long ago grew bored with her pampered life and so fell with the snow to the earth. Now she can’t get back, and so appears on winter nights with the full moon, longing to go home. (This seems much more romantic than, say, the version of Yuki Onna that eats child livers.) 

Yuki Onna reconstituted.

Another tells of tells of a man who married a beautiful woman who was pale as snow. The man loved to take long, hot baths at night, and was puzzled by his wife’s refusal to bathe as he did. Finally he badgered and cajoled her enough to try it, and when he looked in to see how she was doing, all that was left of her were a few icicle fragments in the water. 

The most popular tale comes from a Westerner retelling (probably with embellishments) a story he was told while collecting Japanese ghost stories around the turn of the 20th century. The tale describes two woodcutters–one older, the other younger–who were stranded in a hut during a blizzard. The younger man woke in the dead of night to find a pale woman standing over his friend. As he watched, she sucked the life out of the older man until he was nothing but a frost-covered corpse. The woman went to do the same to the younger man, but stopped at his handsomeness. She told him that she’d let him go, but that if he ever spoke to anyone–even his own mother–of what had happened, that she would find him and kill him.

The young man recovered from the trauma of the night, never saying a word of it. He met a pretty young woman on the road one winter, and ended up marrying her. They led a happy life, having a whopping ten children. Then, one fateful night, the man was watching his wife sew in the light of a paper lantern. Something about it reminded him of his terrible vision during the blizzard all those years ago. He finally got it off his chest, telling his wife every detail. She listened patiently until he was finished, and then turned on him, lips darkening, eyes black with rage. Only then did he recognize her as the woman from the hut. Yuki Onna raged against him, stopping short of killing him only for the sake of their children. Then she vanished in a gust of snow, never to be seen again. 

Snowglobe

So what’s the deal with legends of deadly women emerging from the snow? Yuki Onna is hardly unique in that regard–there are stories of snow women from all over the place

One interesting take involves “paradoxical disrobing”–the phenomenon where people with severe hypothermia suddenly feel very hot and start to take off their clothes. It could be that before that phenomenon was known, those that happened upon half-naked corpses in the snow drew their own conclusions about what had gone down. Other explanations include optical illusions brought on by temperature inversion, delirium from hypothermia, or just plain hyperactive imaginations during cold, dark storms. 

It makes sense for us to be afraid of winter. We may have forgotten just how much sense it makes, locked up inside our cozy homes drinking beverages with enough cholesterol to kill a horse, but it does. Stories like that of Yuki Onna help us remember if not the particulars, then the emotion behind them. 

Stay warm out there. 

If a ghostly snow lady called to you, would you answer, or pretend to be absorbed in your phone? Share your survival plan in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Sawaki Suushi for thoughtful Yuki Onna and Brigham Young University for the smug Yuki Onna.

Just slap some spackle over it: Castle Houska and the gateway to Hell

About an hour outside of Prague, alone among thick forest, swamps, and mountains, there sits a 13th-century castle atop a sheer limestone cliff. The castle Houska (Hoe-skuh) has no outward-facing fortifications, and is guarded only by a lone statue of the saint Ludmila, now weathered and half-covered with moss. Houska cannot be reached by bus, and is too remote to bike to. The only way in is by car.

Castle Houska
Castle Houska.

Though the years have added new structures and purpose to Houska, its original, deeply odd shape remains. It must have taken an enormous amount of time and resources to erect that original structure, but when it was finished, there was little in it that made sense, and even less to encourage human habitation.  Houska was not positioned along any trade route, political line, or militarily strategic position. There was no water nearby. There was no kitchen. Some even claim that many of its windows were fake–stone frames that looked pretty from the outside, but let no light within. 

Most strangely of all, the castle had no fortifications of any kind. At least–it’s fortifications were not facing the outside. All instead turned within, aimed toward a chapel built over layers upon layers of heavy stone slabs. 

The walls of the chapel are thick. Unusual frescos stretch along them: Saint Michael the Archangel skewers a horned demon. A left-handed centaur aims her arrow at another woman’s throat. As the sun lowers down over the mountains, light disappearing off the altar, screams can be heard echoing from under the rock. 

The chapel.

Pit of despair

One of the great things about Houska is how far back its story goes. It could well be that humans inhabited (or avoided) its site since pre-recorded history. The stories that we can corroborate begin around AD 900, when a Slavic prince built a wooden castle there in honor of his beloved son. No sooner did people start to move in did a great crack split underneath of it, releasing unspeakable horrors that quickly left the castle abandoned and the surrounding countryside in terror. 

For 300 years, giant creatures with leathery wings stalked the sky, picking off livestock and travelers that got too close to the hole. Half-human, half-beast hybrids attacked people in the woods. Crops wilted and died. Any effort to investigate or seal off the hole was met with frustration at best. It was so deep that none could see its bottom; though the villagers tried to fill it with rocks, it simply swallowed them whole.

Come the mid-1200’s, one Duke Ottokar decided that something had to be done. The Duke set up a little experiment: prisoners condemned to death would be released from their sentence if they would agree to be lowered into this pit and report back on what was down there. The first man to go was a young, eager fellow. He held tight to his rope while the crowd watched the shadows of the pit swallow him. The rope went a little further down, then a little further. Then the screaming began. 

Ludmila trying to keep them demons at bay.

The man’s howls echoed in the hole, his rope trembling in the hands of the men desperately pulling him back up. By the time he reached the surface, it was too late. The man’s hair had gone completely white, skin withered and gray, eyes wild, speech hysterical and rambling. He blubbered about a terrible smell, screams in the dark, and then lapsed into incoherence. A few days later, he would die without offering the frightened people any more information. 

Some say that the Duke repeated experiment a few more times after that, with similar results. Others say that after seeing what happened to the first guy, no other prisoner volunteered for the job. Either way, if it wasn’t obvious before, it was now: The pit was clearly a gateway to Hell. It had to be covered up.

Down the rabbit hole

The Duke set his men about the long and expensive task of saving the countryside. First the pit was covered with tons of heavy slabs. Then they built  a chapel on top of that, with the hope that its symbolism and power would keep the demons permanently at bay. Around that chapel they erected a castle, all of its fortifications built inside out: it was not meant to keep invaders out, after all, but in. 

It was a great effort, but not entirely a success. To this day, disturbing visions plague Houska’s surrounding hillside: A horse (or man) runs full speed, their headless stump of a neck gushing blood. A woman in white peeks out of the castle walls. A group of shackled men shuffle forward, carrying dismembered body parts and cringing against attacks from a great black dog. 19th-century poet Karel Hynek Mácha spent the night and not only saw a disturbing funeral procession, but also had a prophetic dream of the year 2006. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. 

A shot of Houska’s interior.

Add to that the strange, sometimes evil things that keep happening there. Houska has been used variously as a hunting lodge (it is filled with an insane number of deer heads), a dumping ground, and a sanitorium. During the ugly Thirty Years’ War, a sadistic Swedish officer named Oronto took up residence in the castle, hoping that its power would boost his black magic. In a last, desperate effort to stop him, a party of hunters set out to shoot him down. They finally managed to get him through a window of the castle, but as he died, he called out for his black hen–presumably in an effort to work some spell to keep himself around for a while yet. While he didn’t survive, his spirit did, and haunts the castle still.

Then there were the Nazis. Houska was one of several castles that they holed up in during the war, where they stored thousands of confiscated books. It is said that they might have conducted human experiments within the castle walls. Certainly they would have tried to plumb its depths for knowledge of the occult–one of their increasingly desperate tactics to get any edge they could. We may never know; when the Allies defeated them, they burned all records, leaving only nasty memories (and a set of bikes) behind. 

Flip that castle

Has the bright light of modernity made the castle any happier of a place to be? Yes and no.

“Yes” in that there are no longer human experiments conducted there (so far as I know…). The castle is now open to the public and can be visited April through October. There are brightly lit, cheerfully decorated parts of it that would fit in in an episode of Gilmore Girls. These can be rented out for various personal, corporate, and artistic occasions–you can even have your wedding there

“No” in that weird stuff keeps happening. Car batteries won’t start. A wine glass floated several feet into the air in the middle of a conversation. A couple that was winding down in the hunting lodge one evening heard a loud thump.  Alarmed, they turned and were faced with two shadowy figures, which approached and started whispering about killing little girls.

Houska, ext.

But modern science and historical sleuthing can explain this stuff away, right? The visions could be the result of noxious gas leaking out of the crack in the limestone. The reason that Houska didn’t have the usual human accommodations or strategic positioning could be that it was built simply as an administrative building. 

The Astonishing Legends podcast (besides being a great resource for those who want to dig more into Houska in general) explores the gaps where these common explanations don’t quite make sense. Why would Duke Ottokar choose to build an administrative building over a giant hole in the ground? Houska is not situated over a volcano…any noxious gas that the initial crack might have produced should have dissipated over the centuries, right? And what kind of gas would it be, exactly, that would cause everyone to have the same types of visions over the years, that wouldn’t automatically kill anyone who got close enough, and that, instead of making people tired and dull, would make them active and fearful (like the poor sap that was first lowered into the pit)? 

My favorite myths are ones that can’t be fully dismissed. Houska is one of them. If nothing else, it is a bottomless pit of mystery, and will hopefully leave us guessing for years to come. 

Did you know that “Houska” means “braided bread roll” in Czech? Figure out the significance of that sh*t in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: A big thank you to Ladislav Boháč for Houska in the hills; Scary Side of Earth for both the chapel and the chandelier; ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) for Ludmila; and ladabar for Houska’s exterior.

Ghosted by a ghost: the black monk of Pontefract

It was August, 1966. In an unassuming house at 30 East Drive, Pontefract, England, Sarah Scholes was watching her 15-year old grandson Philip Pritchard while his parents and sister were away for the holiday week. Though the weather was hot, the house was curiously cold. Then Philip walked into the living room and stopped: There was a fine white dust falling silently from chest-height all around the room. 

30 East Drive.

The pair were very confused. It would make more sense if the dust were drifting down from the ceiling (though not much more, as the house had been recently renovated). But appearing mid-air? Sarah called Philip’s aunt Marie over from where she lived across the street to get a second opinion. Marie did not know where the dust came from, either, but she knew it needed to get cleaned up. She went into the kitchen to get a rag, and slipped in a puddle of water that hadn’t been there a moment before. Grumbling to herself, she mopped the puddle up, only to have another appear. And another.

They called the water company. The water company couldn’t figure out where the puddles were coming from, either. Marie went home, and Sarah and Philip tried to move on with their lives. Then, around 7 o’clock, Philip’s startled cry came out of the kitchen.

“Grandma, it’s happening again!”

Loose leaf tea and sugar lay strewn all over the counter. The button on the tea dispenser clicked and then depressed, splashing steaming tea over the mess. Then it went down again. And again. And again, hissing, continuing to depress even as the water ran out, faster, and faster. “Stop!” Sarah cried. “Stop it!”

CRASH. Something in the hall. They stumbled over see what it was. The hall was empty, dark. The silence built, and then light clicked on, startling them both.

Rue Morgue notes that a typically agreed-upon definition of a poltergeist is trickster-like activity stemming from from psychokinesis (often perpetuated by a young person in distress). The poltergeist doesn’t seriously harm its victims, and quickly goes away with time or therapy. 

The things happening at 30 East Drive don’t fit that definition. For one, the presence there has shown itself on multiple occasions to not just be energy, but a tall figure robed in black. It has a tendency to come in full force and then fade away, but has persisted for over 50 years. Instead of coming from children, it attacks children. And it means people harm.  

Still, they call the Black Monk of Pontefract a poltergeist, anyway. The most violent poltergeist in Britain

Who you gonna call?

After that initial day of horror (which culminated in a violently rocking dresser and the two fleeing the house to sleep at a neighbor’s), the activity ceased for a full two years. Grandma probably  got tired of trying to convince the family that they hadn’t been seeing things; maybe she even managed to convince herself. 

A grandfather clock was one of the many objects hurled around.

But just as they started to relax, the ghost came back full force. Loud crashes became a part of daily life, as did objects (including a solid oak sideboard) flying through the air or disappearing and reappearing in odd places. Green foam burst out of the sink. An aunt got an entire carton of milk dumped over her head. The daughter of the family, Diane, was thrown out of bed, and, on a few occasions, would wake up on the floor with her mattress on top of her.

Things escalated from there. The disturbances became so common that the family gave the ghost a name: Fred. Though there were bad signs–attacks focused on Diane, family photos brutally slashed–the Pritchards refused to move out. It was their house, after all. 

Instead, they tried to force the ghost out with exorcisms. These were met with walls weeping with holy water, people getting slapped and shoved down the stairs, upside down crosses, and a pair of women’s fur gloves conducting the songs meant to drive Fred out. 

Then one night Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard woke to find a tall, dark figure hovering over their bed. He quickly disappeared, but later, other people started seeing him around the house, too, though they never saw his face. More people–the family and visitors alike–got pushed, slapped, scratched, bruised. Then Diane’s hair stood straight up, and she was dragged, screaming, up an entire flight of stairs. The incident left her badly traumatized, and with finger-shaped bruises on her throat.

And just like that, all supernatural activity cut off again. The ghost, it seemed, was over it.

Historical reenactments

A Cluniac monk, to help along your imagination.

But the living were not over the ghost. 10 years after Fred took his leave, Cluniac monk researcher Tom Cluniff happened to hear about what had gone on at 30 East Drive. He put the  pieces of the past together with the present. A 16th-century monk had been convicted for the rape and murder of an adolescent girl (in an uncomfortable twist, an adolescent girl about Diane’s age), and hanged just across the street from where the house now stands. 

Suddenly the black robes of the figure so many people had seen in the house (and around the neighborhood, by the way) made sense. Of course! Fred was a monk. And thus the moniker “Black Monk of Pontefract” was born, and the interest in the ghost renewed. 

One of the interested parties was director Pat Holden, a Pontefract native related by marriage to Jean Pritchard, matron of 30 East Drive. Holden was so excited about Cluniff’s findings–and what he’d heard about the haunting–that he decided to make a movie. 

Back in black

In 2012, Holden’s When the Lights Went Out captured both the idea of poltergeists as psychokinetic energy as well as the history of the Black Monk. Though the indie film garnered mixed reviews, it further reignited the imagination of the public, and, in so doing, reignited the haunting. 

Producer Bill Bungay discovered house was for sale, and bought it so that he could have his movie premier in style. He didn’t believe in the ghost, so even though his phone behaved oddly in the house and there were reports of strange lights and noises, he didn’t think much of it. He dismissed the warnings of the neighbors, who had seen Fred around again. He shrugged off the psychic who said during the premiere that she could see Fred watching them from his favorite place on the stairs. 

Then came one night when Bungay was outside 30 East Drive alone, locking up the gate after a day of documentary shooting. He put the plunger on the gate down and secured it (with difficulty) with a cinderblock. Then he turned to lock the door to the house. But his house key had disappeared from his pocket. He glanced uneasily over his shoulder, and found that the gate that he had just shut stood wide open. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

Marbles are a common projectile.

Bungay has shown Fred more respect after that (though Fred often throws things at him, missing him by a hair). He now rents 30 East Drive to people curious about the haunting. This has resulted in a number of interesting photos, and 288 accounts of happenings at the house. Included in them is a story where the neighbors were visiting Bungay, and one of their granddaughters came into the room, taking a bite out of a polystyrene orange. Her grandmother quickly took it and scolded her, asking her where she’d even got it from. The girl replied innocently: “A man in black gave it to me.” 

You can browse the rest of the occurrences here. They range from your typical bangings and mutterings to reports such as the following:

“Asked sister in toilet “Are you alright” which she replied “Yes thank you” BUT at the exact same time she replied the WHOLE GROUP said “Wow, did you hear that!”? A man’s “HMM MMM” mocking sister’s reply.”

“Possible spirits of dogs photographed.”

There are also a few more serious ones:

“Arriving early the group knocked on the door of 30 East Drive on the off chance there was someone in but the house was locked and vacant. As the group turned and walked back down the path someone started loudly and aggressively banging on the window as if to get their attention. The group presumed someone was indeed inside and returned only to reconfirm that the house was still firmly locked and vacant, a fact later confirmed when the house was opened for the waiting group 30 mins later.”

“Group leader asked if ‘Fred’ wanted to “play”. Then a noise was heard on the landing so the group leader rushed to see and standing in the doorway off the small bedroom was a really tall black figure which moved into the room behind the door. Not thinking, the group leader walked straight into the shadow, an experience that affected him badly.”

Want to get in on the fun? 30 East Drive is available for rent today for £300-400 a night (free if you happen to be a theoretical physicist). If you’re not in the UK, don’t have that kind of cash, or don’t have the desire to spend the night in a place where the bed was recently flipped over and trashed at 3am, you can join the 30 East Drive Facebook group

Either way, I would hurry up and get involved before Fred ups and loses interest again. It’s only a matter of time. 

Flour, snow, talc, or cocaine? Free associate your thoughts about white powder in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Mark Stevenson for the house photo; Twdk for the grandfather clock that is not THE grandfather clock (but it will do); F. A. Gasquet for less murder-y monk; James Petts for the marbles (again, not THE marbles, but hey).

Hungry eyes: the Tenome

Did you know that Stephen King himself squirmed when he saw the Pale Man scene in Pan’s Labryrinth? Hard same, Steve. When I first saw that movie, that scene disturbed me so much that it came back around and left me grinning ear to ear. The Pale Man is geniusly weird, with his sagging skin and eyes on his palms. Who could have thought him up?

Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
The Pale Man (in case you need me to jog your memory).

It turns out the answer is the Japanese, some 250 years ago. The original monster was not a naked dude with skin folds conveniently covering his private bits, but a yokai that appears at first glance to be a zato (a member of a blind man’s guild). This not-zato can be found lurking in cemeteries, hands outstretched, as if he has only recently lost his vision and is searching for something. Get close enough, and you’ll find out in quick succession that a) he’s not blind, but looking with eyes embedded in his hands, and b) what he’s looking for is a snack like you. 

Once the tenome (pronounced teh-no-may, not teh-gnome) has caught your scent, you’re finished. He moves fast, and even if he doesn’t catch you right away, he’s likely to find you later.

Eye have a bad feeling about this 

Take the story of a bold youth who went to spend the night in a graveyard on a dare. The youth was getting settled in when he noticed an elderly blind man wandering around some distance away. Scoffing to himself–this was supposed to be a night of horror, not charity–he went to see if the zato needed help. The youth got close, calling out to him, and then the zato turned around. The youth froze–there were nothing but empty patches of skin where the zato’s eyes were supposed to be, and on his withered palms, reaching toward the youth’s face, where two bare, unblinking eyes.

The tenome lunged, and the youth ran. There was a temple nearby, and he ducked inside, crying out for help. 

A monk answered his call. Alarmed, he listened to the young man’s account and realized at once that that they both had to hide, and fast. The monk hurried the youth into a large chest, and then hid himself. He knew his temple and its constituents well, so when a soft shuffle of feet appeared at the entryway, he knew that they belonged to a stranger. 

The monk held his breath and begged his heart to beat more quietly. The shuffling neared, and then slowed to a stop. There was silence, then a long, breathy slurping sound, like a dog sucking the flesh off a bone. 

The monk squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the touch of dry fingers, the soft, wet give of an eye. Instead, the shuffling resumed, moved back to the entrance, and faded away. The monk hesitated for a long time before coming out of his hiding place, unable to believe his luck. He and the youth had survived an encounter with a fearsome yokai! He hurried to lift the lid of the box, knowing that the young man would be anxious to get out. 

His greeting died on his lips. The chest was empty save for a blubbery pile of skin–the only thing the tenome had left of the would-be adventurer. 

That is the first commonly circulated story about the tenome. The second is more of an origin story, where a blind man is attacked by brigands and dies cursing them, wishing that he could see their faces, if only with his hands. He was granted his wish too literally and came back as a yokai. You can guess the rest. 

A jest gets out of hand

The Tenome, by Toriyama Seiken
Sekien’s illustration.

The tenome first appeared in a 1776 yokai encyclopedia written by Toriyama Sekien. Sekien gave the tenome its name as a multi-layered wordplay joke at the expense of gamblers and priests. His accompanying illustration is also (via complex allusions) humorous, poking fun at cheaters and people who are so jumpy that they see ghosts everywhere. A good breakdown of the joke (such as it can be understood by people who only know English) can be found here; I am not able to do it justice.  

Beyond that, Sekien gives us no other information–no context for where the tenome comes from or what it is. Perhaps he meant for it to be nothing more than a joke. But as is the danger with all jokes, some people didn’t get it. They took the tenome seriously. I’m glad that they did, because they gave the tenome a life of its own, and have created some wonderful things.

A hand-some legacy

Pan’s Labyrinth (and all the artwork spinoffs it created) is not the only modern place the tenome has appeared. The yokai also inspired one of the bosses from Cuphead (a video game featuring  surrealist 1930’s rubber hose-style animation), and appears in the popular Pathfinder roleplaying game. Search “tenome” in Youtube, and you’ll come up several gameplay videos for an indie horror piece that came out a few years back (developed in a whopping 2 days!). You can play it for yourself here if you’d like to get some modern-day tenome action

The Pale Man will always have a special place in my heart, but with so many versions of the tenome out there, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Maybe I should ask the universe for a guiding hand. 

Oda Teme bozu, or tenome
Get it????

What would the incidence of bacterial conjunctivitis be in a population whose eyes are embedded in their hands? Share your estimates in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Ryan on Flickr for the Pale Man; Toriyama Sekien 300 years late for his clever tenome image; and 尾田淑 for the tenome image in color.

Wake up, sheeple! It’s the Sheepsquatch

Once upon a time, in the low mountains of West Virginia, a former Navy seaman decided to eat some mushrooms he found on the forest floor. The man–Edward Rollins–was in that forest to hunt for either the Mothman or a UFO, but after his choice of snack, he was in for a greater treat: Out of the woods came a bipedal creature the size of a bear, with matted, white wooly fur; curved goat horns; and hands like a raccoon. This monstrosity–half sheep, half ‘squatch–knelt at the edge of a nearby creek to lap at the water. 

A raccoon hand, for the uninitiated.

One could presume that if Ed were hunting for supernatural stuff, he would have some sort of camera or other recording equipment on him. But if he did, the terror of this strange beast (or maybe it was just the ‘shrooms again) stayed his hand. The creature reeked of sulfur; Ed could smell it from where he hid. When it finally stood up to lumber away, he bolted to his car, and the legend of the Sheepsquatch began.

Lambchop redux

The Sheepsquatch was spotted several times thereafter, and not just by people tripping balls. Other encounters cast it as a sort of ‘roided out version of Baphomet: 8 feet tall, a head half that wide, fangs, frightening speed, a humanoid scream. The same year that Ed had his little mushroom encounter, the Sheepsquatch startled a pair of children playing in their backyard and later a group of women driving on the icy roads of the TNT–the same area famous for all the Mothman business. In both cases, it spooked and ran away, leaving broken branches in its wake. 

A little mood setting.

All of this was in 1994. By ’95, the ‘squatch became pissed enough at people interrupting its business that it started to get aggressive. The next time a couple came upon it along the highway (it was squatting in a ditch at the time, and sporting an extra set of red eyes), it launched at them and nearly ran them off the road, leaving long scratches down the side of their car. In ’99, the ‘squatch emerged out of the dark to snarl at a group of campers, chasing them out of the woods and then destroying their campground so thoroughly that it looked like the soil had been tilled. 

Over the next few years, the Sheepsquatch would frighten various hikers and documentary crews. The last sighting was in 2015, with yet another group of ill-advised campers. This time, the story played out a little differently: One of the campers saw the Sheepsquatch silhouetted against the night sky and hurried to warn their friends about its presence. The campers stumbled out of their tents in time to see Sheepsquatch hesitate on the other side of the creekbank before wading toward them with murderous intent. But a guttural screech stopped its progress. The ‘squatch looked up, eyes wild, snout twitching in the moonlight, and then barreled away. The campers thought it best to follow its lead, stopping just long enough to warn the locals before getting the hell out of town.

Baa-ad company

The Sheepsquatch is sometimes categorized as one of West Virginia’s White Things, possibly because encountering either feels like a hallucinogenic nightmare. 

An image one might use were they to take the Sheepsquatch seriously.

The White Things haunt the same area as the Sheepsquatch, and are characterized as pale, ghostly harbingers of death. They move with unnatural speed and are prone to fiercely attacking their victims, driving them insane with pain but leaving no visible marks. A 1929 account by coal miner Frank Kozul describes a dog-like something launching at him out of nowhere, tearing at him in a frenzy with no sound but the gentle rustling of trees and the singing of birds. Another account describes a white figure knocking a hunter down a hill. He screamed with inconsolable terror that it was “ripping out his guts,” but to his fellow hunters, there appeared to be nothing physically wrong.

If we group the Sheepsquatch with the White Things, we get to imagine fun scenarios like it scarring a child by floating alongside a car at 65 mph. The theory goes that these White Things might all be different species of one phylum of interdimensional beings, ghosts, or cryptids. If the Sheepsquatch isn’t a mushroom induced hallucination, it really could be anything.

Spawn of Sheepsquatch

Regardless of where the Sheepsquatch came from, it has inspired some excellent creative activity. One gem comes in the form of a book elegantly titled “Sheepsquatch” (“Sheep” in white; “Squatch” in a messy, bloody red) and featuring some of the best cover art I have ever seen. The book appears to be one in a series of “Vapid Vixen Horror Romance,” authored by the subtly pennamed “I. Ronik.” I tried to buy a copy, but alas, they are no longer for sale. 

Art!

On a slightly more mainstream scale, Fallout 76 (an online roleplaying game, for the uninitiated) included a “Shear Terror” Wild Appalachia update that features the Sheepsquatch stealing a character’s brother. From the pictures that I’ve seen, the designers have elected to remove some of the Sheepsquatch’s skin for a more dramatic effect.

My hope is that these and other works of ‘squatch art will help raise awareness about this important issue, drawing more people into the woods of West Virginia and giving us more ‘squatch sightings. 🤞 

Until then, ewe will just have to stay put. 

Would a Sheepsquatch wool sweater be more or less itchy than a standard wool sweater? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

PHOTO CRED: Gaby Müller for the manicure inspiration; Estelle Pizer for the flock; the Internet Archive Book for Mr. twisty horns; Suju for the mirror sheep.

Call me Ishmael: the great white Ningen

Sea monsters! Out of all cryptids, I find them to be the most plausible. We’ve only explored about 20% of the world’s oceans, and in that 20% have already found a lot of weird crap. Who’s to say there couldn’t be something stranger out there?

On an unspecified date in the early 90’s, on the lonely, icy waters of the Antarctic, a 60-foot long, pearly white something broke the waves next to a Japanese research vessel. Fearing that it might be a foreign submarine, crewmen ran to the railing to get a better look at it. Then they noticed that it had skin. And arms. And a face.

Before they could scream, the thing resubmerged, and the legend of the Ningen began.

Arctic
Sploosh.

It’s worth pausing to note the significance of the word “ningen”: In Japanese, it means (roughly) “human.” Naming a giant horror of a creature “human” suggests that behind the Ningen’s humanoid shape, the crewman perceived some uncanny intelligence or spirit. Given that the Ningen can get up to 90 feet long, that is something to be reckoned with.

Typical descriptions of the Ningen make it sound like an f-ed up mermaid: giant, bald, and white, it has (as I have mentioned) two arms and even five-fingered hands. Its nose-less face features only black eyes and a slit mouth. Its feet are often combined into an enormous fin, so that it can shoot through the antarctic waters at killer whale speed.

Those are the typical descriptions. Other descriptions characterize the Ningen as a roughly human-sized blob on two feet. How that and the god-like whale thing are categorized as the same creature, I’ll never know. For the sake of this post, I’m going to stick with the behemoth mermaid version, because clearly it is the superior one.

You can find the Ningen mostly in the cold waters of the Antarctic, possibly relying on hydrothermal vents to warm their freakishly human hands. What little information there is on them originated from an online forum called 2channel, and later a 2007 article in Mu magazine. The rest is internet speculation frenzy.

Ningen
I don’t even know, man.

There have been plenty of photos and videos released of supposed Ningen (or artistic interpretations thereof), but most of these are pretty clearly faked (or hilarious, as in the example to the right). Ningen believers claim this is because the Japanese government freaked out when researchers brought back photos of their definitely-not-a-submarine; they say officials buried those pictures deep and then entered into ongoing campaign to have further evidence destroyed. Much like with the U.S. government and aliens, non-specific government agencies have supposedly flooded the internet with a bunch of crap to make the public think that the whole thing was bunk and move on, all while they work on Top Secret Research about the creatures in the background.

It’s not impossible that there is something weird out there in the deep, cold ocean, and that there were real researchers that really saw it. But what was it that they saw? Cryptid and mystery-hunting sites have offered a number of explanations.

1. Ice.

Unsexy but fair. A lot of the pictures (especially this one and this one) look like ice chunks.

2. Funky-looking sharks, whales, or squid.

This is to say that the Ningen could either have been one of these creatures that was misidentified as a strange and god-like being, or could be a new species of one of these.

Manta ray
No.

3. A giant new species of manta ray.

I find manta rays horrifying enough that this, for me, would be worse than a 90-foot humanoid whale thing.

4. An aquatic sloth.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

5. Some kind of killer whale-type dealio that looks kinda human because of convergent evolution.

Unclear what exactly we’d be convergently evolving to handle, but hey.

6. A U.S.O.

Remember Lake Baikal? The counterpoint to U.F.O.s are U.S.O.s–unidentified submersible objects. This author offers that the Ningen might be some kind of alien ship. Go big or go home, right? And since we’re on the subject…

7. Aliens.

I mean…a lot of sea creatures do look like aliens. Proponents of this theory point out that it’s really weird that nobody noticed the ginormous Ningen swimming around until the 90’s. Rather than presume that’s because someone made them up, what if it was actually because the Ningen weren’t around until then? This would go a ways toward explaining why the government might be so eager to cover them up.

Anyway. With our ongoing climate-change-and-ocean-acidification nonsense, I think it’s safe to say that we’re probably pissing the Ningen off. Maybe they’ll use their strangely human hands to rip a ship in half, or at least to give Google Earth a rude gesture. I, for one, can’t wait.

What is your favorite fish-related pun? Let minnow.

Photo cred: Pixabay for the Arctic ripples, Michael Van WoertRodin for the two-legged Ningen, and asands for the manta ray.

Ain’t got no privacy: The Dark Watchers

The Santa Lucia Mountains.
The Santa Lucia Mountains.

The Santa Lucia mountain range sprawls for 105 miles down the coast of central California, a great, towering expanse of tree and rock that proved impassable for early Spanish explorers. Ocean spray mists the west side of the range, making it fertile ground for conifers and redwoods. The mountains’ height blocks the moisture from travelling further, making its eastern side dry and brown. The Santa Lucia’s beauty and grandeur draw hikers and sightseers, though the terrain permits few roads. It is one of the wildest places left in the U.S.

Naturally, that also makes it home to dark and mysterious figures who like to watch people from cliffs.

The Dark Watcher encounter template

The typical Dark Watcher story goes something like this: A hiker or runner finds themselves alone in the mountains, either by choice or because they have become separated from their group. They feel suddenly uneasy. A tall figure looms on the horizon–a humanoid shape composed of complete darkness. The shape either gazes off toward the ocean or, more uncomfortably, stares at the witness. Sometimes it has a broad-brimmed hat and a staff, sometimes a hunch. Sometimes its friends will darken the spaces between the trees.

If the witness tries to double-check that the figure is actually there, or attempts to draw closer, it will vanish. But that doesn’t mean its presence can’t be corroborated. There are accounts of multiple people in a group seeing the figure at once, or the figure showing up in the same place at the same time the following year. The Dark Watchers never speak or attack. They just watch. But it is enough to leave an impression.

The internet has it that the Dark Watchers were part of the lore of the original tenants of coastal California–the Chumash (though this has been disputed). The Spanish conquistadors allegedly also ran into them, naming them Los Vigilantes Oscuros. But the Dark Watchers aren’t just half-forgotten monsters of legend: There have been sightings as recently as 2018. A witness from Ojai recounts:

“I was hiking up a remote trail up the 33 in Ojai, I was about an hour up the mountain, no people, no cars in sight. as I was hiking, I had this eerie feeling I was being watched. I looked up at the top of the mountain. It was a black figure. I waved, jokingly, not really thinking the object was a person. It waved back. Thinking I was maybe tripping, or that it was a tree waving in the wind, I took a puff of my cigarette, only to see the figure blow out a plume of smoke as well. I started seeing it flowing, and I say flowing, almost floating vertically. I ran like hell back to my car, spraining my knee in the process. “

Literary cameos

No account of the Dark Watchers would be complete without mentioning that they’ve appeared in the work of none other than John Steinbeck. From his short story “Flight”:

“Pepe looked up to the top of the next dry withered ridge. He saw a dark form against the sky, a man’s figure standing on top of a rock, and he glanced away quickly not to appear curious. When a moment later he looked up again, the figure was gone. Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.”

Shadow man
What a Dark Watcher might look like with a shaggy haircut and shorts.

Steinbeck’s son (more on him in a moment) would later claim that the Dark Watchers were a fairly common part of his family’s life, even going so far as to say that his grandmother traded things with them. Certainly they seem to have been popular around the 1930’s (when “Flight” was written), because around that same time they were mentioned in a poem called “Such Counsels You Gave Me” by Robinson Jeffers, another Big Sur resident:

But when he approached
The fall of the hill toward Howren’s he saw apparently
A person on the verge, outlined against the darkening
Commissure of the farther hills, intently gazing
Into the valley. The young man’s tired and dulled mind,
Bred in these hills, taught in the city, reverted easily
Toward his dead childhood; he thought it might be one of the watchers,
Who are often seen in this length of coast-range, forms that look human
To human eyes, but certainly are not human.
They come from behind ridges and watch. But when he approached it
He recognized the shabby clothes and pale hair
And even the averted forehead and the concave line
From the eye to the jaw, so that he was not surprised
When the figure turning toward him in the quiet twilight
Showed his own face. Then it melted and merged
Into the shadows beyond it…

These accounts seemed to give the Dark Watchers a boost in popularity, leading people to not only not avoid being out in the mountains alone (as would probably be advisable), but to actively seek the Watchers out.

Modern hunt for the figures in black

I mentioned Steinbeck’s son–Thomas. The Dark Watchers fascinated him so that he and painter Benjamin Brode wrote a book on the subject: In Search of the Dark Watchers. Brode would go into the woods to try to capture the Watchers visually, and Steinbeck would write of his adventures. Both men seem to think of the Watchers not as 7 to 15 feet tall (as in other accounts), but as small, fairy-like creatures. There is a video of Steinbeck and Brode talking about the process of making the book; Brode discusses how he had to switch from bringing his paint-set to carrying only a sketchpad for fear that the abundance of equipment was scaring the Dark Watchers off. Steinbeck mentions that you can’t look at them directly or they will disappear–you can only view them out of the corner of your eye.

Apparently their pains paid off. Brode reported that not only did he see the Dark Watchers, but that there were so many coming out of the shadows that he was nearly tripping on them. Steinbeck called Brode’s paintings “possibly the only evidence out there of the existence of the Dark Watchers.” (You can preview some of the paintings on their website; they are very beautiful but I don’t see any definitive Dark Watchers in them. Perhaps I am not looking hard enough.)

Raincoat dog
No.

Others have found the Watchers more difficult to find. This might be due to the fact that they apparently have an aversion to modern trappings, especially (and oddly specifically) weatherproofed gear. The fog that often covers the west side of the mountains might be tempting monster-seekers into clothing choices that hamper their search. ‘Ware the water-resistant windbreaker. Plastic ponchos are right out.

Cousins of the man in Ben MacDui?

So what’s the deal with the Dark Watchers, really? Skeptics propose a number of potential explanations.

  1. The people who truly see these figures (and aren’t just making up stories for others’ entertainment) could be tired, duped by the tricks of the light in the varied landscape (i.e. the “Dark Watchers” are just a bunch of rocks).
  2. The mountains could be emitting infrasound. If something is creating a signal out of the range of human hearing, a would-be Dark Watcher witness might unconsciously pick it up and get freaked out by it, causing them to imagine that there’s something watching them (this is an explanation offered for ghost sightings in general, by the way).
  3. The Dark Watchers could be Brocken spectres–the same explanation offered for the Am Fear Liath Mor of Ben MacDui. If that were the case, the witnesses could be seeing their own shadows playing on the fog and mistaking them for otherworldly figures. (No word on the sightings that take place during clear days.)

But I’d like to hope that in one of the last wild(ish) places in the U.S., there might be something left that we haven’t thoroughly explained away. What might the Dark Watchers be? Nature spirits? Ghosts? Something worse? It’s enough to make you want to go out there and find out.

Just leave your raincoat in the car.

Have you ever been confronted by a shadowy figure that turns out to have your own face? Share your story in the comments below.

IMAGE CREDIT: Thank you to Pacific Southwest Region USFWS for the terrain photo; Pixabay’s O12 for the shorts man, and Pixabay’s Jim_Combs for the puppy.